Critiquing is a skill. That means that not only can it be learned, but also that, like any skill, there is a definite learning curve. Think of it like learning to be a doctor. Trainees aren’t simply handed a hacksaw and an unconscious patient and told to “go figure out brain surgery. If you’re meant to be a surgeon, it’ll come naturally”. The stages of learning have a specific order designed to build skill sets in progression.
Critiquing, too, can be broken down into such a series of interlocking skills: learning to recognise symptoms, figuring out an accurate diagnosis, and treatment.
The first set of critiquing skills one needs to learn, then, is simply symptom recognition. This entails becoming self-aware as a reader to learn to recognise when parts of a story aren’t working. The good news: you already have the skills to do this. The bad news: those skills are probably unconscious, i.e. you’ve felt them but probably not examined them for the useful information they could impart to the writer. How do I know you have these skills? If you’ve ever read a book that you didn’t think was 100% absolute perfection, then you do. If you’ve ever felt bored, confused, or annoyed by a book, then you have.
Obviously, critiques offer more detailed comments than a blanket “I found it boring in spots”. But pointing out specific instances where you were bored is actually really valuable information to a writer. As such, then, for a more in-depth critique, you can simply start with becoming aware of your own reactions as a reader. Where, for example, did you lose interest? Where were you confused by what was happening? Where were you surprised that a character had been in the room all along, or by how much time had passed? Where could you not picture the setting, or have to read a sentence twice, or find an explanation hard to understand?
There’s a difference between being insightful and being mean, however. “It was really boring, therefore it sucked” is simply mean, in addition to totally unhelpful. “I didn’t like it and therefore found it hard to stay engaged in the story” isn’t very useful, although not actually vindictive. “I didn’t like it because I hated the main character” is better, but only a start. “I didn’t like it because I hated the main character so much that I didn’t care what happened to him” is actually starting to be useful. “I hated him because he was too self-centred and despite it being a love story, I simply couldn’t believe she would ever fall for him” is actually a very useful bit of feedback. And it all began with you simply noting your own emotional reactions as you read.
After all, insight into the eventual reader’s reaction is not just useful in itself, but is also the whole point of a critique: giving the reader an insight as to how “real” readers will perceive the story.
Don’t forget to notice the things that are working as well. Where were you really engaged in the story, leaning forward, pulse racing. Where were you really rooting for a particular character? Where were you surprised and pleased by a plot twist? When did the story’s emotions strike a particularly realistic note or the description paint a particularly vivid picture?
Once you’ve critted a number of stories, you’ll find that you start to recognise patterns and make finer distinctions: “I’m bored here because this scene is a rehash of people talking about things I already know, with nothing new happening, while in that other story, I was bored because it was all description, with nothing happening”. Both of these insights start with the recognition of being bored, then asking “why?”
This is where the learning curve comes in—you might not recognise “why” until you have a range of emotional reactions to different stories to draw upon for comparison. But it will come, almost automatically. You’ll find yourself noting that “I had trouble feeling engaged here because nothing interesting seems to be happening” almost without having to think about it. Which is really good at recognising a symptom: you’ve noted your reaction and figured out why.
That means you are ready to move on to diagnosis. You’re bored because nothing interesting is happening. Time again to try to figure out why. This involves looking at the story at a deeper level. Is it a stakes problem, a pacing problem, a character problem, etc. Don’t worry. Again, this is a matter of starting with the question “why”:
Did the events not seem engaging because you didn’t know why the characters cared so much about what was happening; why didn’t they do the sensible thing and simply leave the problem for someone else to solve (motivation)? Because you didn’t really know what would happen if the character’s failed, or the consequences didn’t seem that bad (stakes)? Because you already knew everything and nothing new happened to move the story along, or everything that did happen was too predictable (plot)? Because this is the third fight scene in a row, or second intense conversation on a train in a row, or fifteenth cup of coffee and pause to think about what to do in two chapters (pacing), or because the character’s goals don’t seem realistic, or their actions to achieve them don’t seem in keeping with what we know of them (character)?
Understanding if you are facing a plot problem versus a pacing problem is important because that leads on to the third stage, remedies. The solution to a stakes problem, for example, might involve not just editing the scene where the critique flagged the problem, but earlier, so then the actions in that scene have better grounding and deeper meaning. Some problems might be structural and require changes throughout the manuscript, while others might only take a word or two to fix.
And again, noticing issues at this level will come with sufficient practice and build-up of a storehouse of previous critiques that you can compare against. As in all things, practice makes perfect.
And this is how critiquing helps you as a writer. Because seeing problems in other people’s work, and figuring out how you’d solve them, then lets you apply these skills to your own work.
Here, it’s worth noting that a good critique can stop at symptoms or diagnosis. But for you the writer, you need then to be able to take other people’s pointing out the symptoms and learn to diagnose your own stories, and should never simply rely on other people’s diagnoses—especially because you will likely get two critiques that say the exact opposite thing! You need to know how to determine if you have a plot problem or a character problem, for instance, in order to know how to fix it.
And even when you do get critiques that agree, you are sill the one that has to determine the solution depending on the type of story you want to write: “flat characters” isn’t nearly the same scale of a problem in a fast-paced thriller as in a contemporary relationship drama. In the former, the solution might involve picking up the pace of the story or adding a subplot, while in the latter, it might require slowing down the pace so events can unfold in more depth, or adding a subplot to show more sides of your characters. Same problem, opposite solution. Never fear, though, as how to interpret critiques to make the right revisions will be addressed in the next instalment.
But for now, you have some solid knowledge of how to examine a story and your own reactions to provide a useful critique. There, you now know how to identify symptoms and make a diagnosis. So go out and slice some brains open!